United States: The New FBI Study On Active Shooters – Is Your Workplace Safe?

Last Updated: February 3 2015
Article by Paul G. Lannon

Paul G. Lannon is a Partner in our Boston office.


  • The FBI's much anticipated study of active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013 was released at the end of 2014. This federal study, the first of its kind, reports that 70 percent of the active shooter incidents occurred at a commercial business or an educational institution.
  • Many educational institutions have begun taking steps to address the risks highlighted by the FBI report, including establishing threat assessment teams, emergency notice capabilities, training, and safety and security audits.

The FBI's much anticipated study of active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013 was released at the end of 2014. This federal study is the first of its kind and its findings are eye-opening, dispelling with concrete data many popularly held myths. For commercial employers, schools, colleges and universities, the findings are especially important: a startling 70 percent of the active shooter incidents occurred at a commercial business or an educational institution. Consequently, a better understanding of the factors involved in these incidents is crucial to helping employers minimize their risks by improving safety, security and training.

FBI Definition of an "Active Shooter"

The FBI study is limited to "active shooter" incidents. An active shooter incident is defined by U.S. government agencies as "an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area." The FBI modified this definition for purposes of its study, including more than one shooter and omitting the word "confined" to cover incidents that occur outside buildings. The focus was on the use of firearms. The study excludes incidents involving only knives, vehicles or other weapons. Shootings resulting from gang or drug violence were also excluded.

Key Stats of the FBI Active Shooter Study

The FBI found 160 active shooter incidents meeting these criteria from 2000 to 2013. There was an average of 11.4 incidents annually, but the pace is increasing. In the first seven years of the study, there was an average of 6.4 incidents per year; however, in the last seven years, the average increased to 16.4 incidents annually. The incidents were also widespread, occurring in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Active shooting tragedies during the study timeframe resulted in more than 1,000 casualties, excluding the shooters themselves. The incidents with the highest casualty counts were:

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn.: 29 casualties
  • Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas: 45 casualties
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, Va.: 49 casualties
  • Cinemark Century 16 Theatre, Aurora, Colo.: 70 casualties

The following are notable facts from the study:

  • In the vast majority of cases, the shooters were young males, acting alone. All but two of the incidents involved a single shooter; only six incidents involved a female shooter.
  • 40 percent of the shooters committed suicide at the scene or shortly thereafter, suggesting that they may have been suffering from suicidal thoughts prior to their attack.
  • The shootings happened very quickly. Of those incidents in which duration could be ascertained, 69 percent ended in five minutes or less, and nearly half ended in two minutes or less.
  • 60 percent of the incidents ended before police arrived.

Findings Regarding Commercial Employers

The FBI found that the most likely place for an active shooting incident to occur was an area of commercial business. A little more than half of those businesses were open to pedestrian traffic, but even those businesses closed to pedestrian traffic suffered 23 active shooter incidents during the period of the study.

In the majority of cases involving businesses open to the public, the shooters were not employed at the location of the attack. Most of the attacks took place on work days, particularly Tuesdays and Fridays, with a fairly equal spread among remaining days of the week. Saturdays were the least likely day for such incidents to occur.

The data differed for businesses closed to pedestrian traffic. In these cases, the danger came from within: all but one of these incidents involved a current or former employee.

  • 22 of the 23 shooters were employed or previously employed at the business where the incident occurred. The sole shooter not employed by the business had a relationship with a current employee.

Consistent with the findings for businesses open to the public, nearly all the incidents took place during the work week. Most occurred on Wednesday, none occurred on Saturday and only one occurred on Sunday.

Findings Regarding Educational Institutions

Shockingly, the second most frequent location for an active shooter incident was at a school, college or university. The following are some specifics from the study:

  • 27 shootings took place at schools K-12 and 12 shootings were at institutions of higher education. These incidents resulted in some of the highest casualty counts.
  • 12 shootings occurred on college and university campuses. The shooters ranged in age from 18 to 62 and included five former students, four current students, two employees and one patient from a visiting medical center. Two of the shooters were female.
  • Most of the incidents occurred on Fridays. None of the incidents occurred on a Saturday, and only one or two incidents occurred on each of the remaining days of the week.
  • More than twice as many active shooter incidents (27) occurred at K-12 schools, with 14 occurring in high schools. In the higher grades, the shooter was always a student.
  • In 12 of the 14 high school shootings, and in five of the six middle school shootings, the shooter was a student at the same school. The other cases involved former students or students at other schools. In contrast, incidents at elementary schools did not involve student shooters.
  • The high school and middle school incidents occurred only during the school week. Two incidents occurred at school board meetings.

Educational Institutions Are Becoming More Proactive to Reduce Risk

Many schools and colleges have begun taking steps to address the risks highlighted by the FBI report. Some measures include establishing threat assessment teams and emergency notice capabilities. Federal efforts such as the Safe School Initiative and the Jeanne Clery Campus Security Act have kept the spotlight on campus safety and served as a guidepost for educators at every level seeking to improve responses to firearm violence.

The findings of the FBI study underscore the importance of commercial businesses, schools, colleges and universities to be proactive by implementing the following:

  • conducting comprehensive safety and security audits of the workplace or campus environments
  • conducting active shooter training exercises
  • developing and implementing emergency protocols to respond to acts of violence
  • training personnel on how to respond to incidents of violence
  • training personnel to identify risk factors leading to violent conflict

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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